First published, with photography, by T Magazine on 12 July 2016
Sprawled on grass, floating down a river, or gazing blankly into the distance — all the subjects captured, unawares, in the photographer Paddy Summerfield’s new book “The Oxford Pictures” share a certain listlessness. In 1968, having been “thrown out” of Guildford School of Art (“the staff weren’t particularly sympathetic towards my vision”), Summerfield returned to his hometown of Oxford, England. He spent the summers of the next 10 years wandering around the grounds of the elite Oxford University, where he photographed students at leisure.
What he sensed at the university, he says, was an atmosphere that mirrored how he felt about his own life. “I was young,” he says, “It’s a young person’s vision, noticing girls and noticing other people’s relationships — but I was always outside everything.” He recognized a similar nervousness in the subjects of his photos, who hovered between the social rituals of university and an existential uncertainty. At the time, Summerfield was heavily influenced by John Lennon — and there is something personal and deeply melancholy about these images. “I set out to show heartache and disappointment,” he says. “It’s about feeling… well, I suppose, isolated and lonely, and full of sexual anxiety.”
Some of the most striking photographs in the book are those of students lying in the grounds of the campus, presumably asleep in the sun. They are crumpled into one another, arms often flung outwards; it’s not immediately clear whether they’re dead or alive. “There’s one of a girl who is lying down, and her skirt has slightly risen, and she does look as though she’s falling, in a dream,” says Summerfield. Years later, he came across photographer I. Russel Sorgi’s 1942 image of a woman in the act of suicide, falling from an eighth-floor window: “Her body language is exactly the same as that woman, that girl lying on the grass,” Summerfield says.
A selection of Summerfield’s pictures was shown at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford in 1976. But this month, 40 years later, they become the subject of a new book. Summerfield says that the fashionable British documentary photographers of the time — Don McCullin, David Hurn, Ian Berry, Tony Ray Jones — were more preoccupied with society than with introspection. “They were interested in the world around them,” he says. “I’m interested in the interior world.”
“The Oxford Pictures,” $40, dewilewis.com.